“Living” – Film Review

There are no accidents. I’d been wanting to write more about Jung’s view of mortality, when I saw a film that gives the ideas flesh and a face. At first, I hesitated to see “Living,” because the plot seemed hackneyed: buttoned-up, bowler-wearing bureaucrat, given terminal diagnosis, loses inhibitions and crams life into his few remaining months.

But this has a unique spin: the ability of novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote “The Remains of the Day” and actor Bill Nighy, who plays Mr. Williams. His life consists of routine: daily train into the city at precisely the same time, only nodding to his colleagues, pushing paper around in the Public Works Dept., return, sleep, repeat. Other critics have mentioned Williams’ British, stiff-upper-lip response to his doctor’s grim news: “Quite.”

He then spins through a somewhat predictable sequence of getting drunk, trying amusement parks, asking a young female colleague out to lunch. She is so dazzled by the prestigious Fortnum’s restaurant and a huge sundae with sprinkles, that he permits himself a small smile.

And then the film begins to clearly prove Jung’s belief, “Life is never so beautiful as when surrounded by death.” Williams, with the urge of the dying to set things right, takes on a cause proposed by three women, which has gotten lost in bureaucracy: building a small playground in a bombed-out London tenement (the action occurs shortly after World War II).

Jung believed we have a foot in each world: the temporal and the eternal. The film shows this in a lovely scene: after long persistence, Williams achieves the playground, and swings there during a light snowfall, singing his favorite Scottish ballad. A policeman later commented, “I didn’t interrupt because he looked so happy.” Death marks not an end but a transition; humans throughout history in a “consensus gentium” or “agreement of the people” have held that life continues in another key. Just as the birth canal is the passage into new life, so too the tomb.

Our mortality brings life tenderness, beauty and wounded glory. The purpose of death is to know life fully; we couldn’t appreciate the intensity of love without the possibility of loss, the preciousness of relationships without an expiration date.

It’s one thing to repeat Jung’s phrases, quite another to live them. That’s what Bill Nighy as Mr. Williams has done, and it’s important that his film is called “Living,” not “Dying.”

One response to ““Living” – Film Review

  1. Your timing is providential. My brother Vince, 83 yrs, died two days ago and we’re on our way to near Philadelphia for funeral rites and celebrations. Perhaps will try to see “Living” on the flight there. Loved the “consensus gentium” phrase which I’ve never heard before. John

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